An Alternative to “Southie Rules”


I get it. Long day at work, or studying, or taking care of itty bitty babes. Traffic was bad, the lingering cough is getting worse, dinner was something scraped together from the cabinets and (gah!) the freezer is devoid of treats. The couch is calling, and nothing sounds better than tuning in and quieting down your headspace.

So tune in! But maybe just for tonight, if it’s your usual habit, exchange the reality cotton-candy fluff for something a little more substantial, a little more thought-provoking. Trade the manufactured drama that has all the fizz and excitement of a half-liter of flat soda for the real, historically documented stuff that molded and shaped eras and people.

I’ve got to confess an ulterior motive – the documentary I’m pushing tonight is one that took up the better part of a year of my working life. A stellar team created it – director, writer, editor, producers and assistants of all levels. I think the music and sound design are great. The old film footage and photographs are unreal. And the parts of the story about the life of one of the most familiar names in American industrial and automotive history might surprise you. So instead of giving your hard-earned free evening time over to “Southie Rules” or a re-run of “Real Housewives,” please tune in to “Henry Ford” on PBS tonight, 9-11 p.m. EST. You can always DVR the fluff!

P.S. If you watch and have feedback, I’d love to hear it. Friendly critiques make all of us better.

Cranberry Pecan Bread

A good alternative to raiding grocery store shelves for things one may not ordinarily buy in bulk but that are imperative to have on-hand during a weather semi-emergency – bottled water, bagged bread, peanut butter, hot dogs (maybe, maybe not), big clear plastic gallons of milk – is to host a baking marathon. Attendees: the baker, a TV show or movie that requires only intermittent attention to follow the plot line (say, Con Air with commercial breaks, or Burn Notice, or Best in Show — but only if you’ve seen it a few times already), and maybe someone to eat up all the finished products.  Should this storm really ratchet up, I might regret buying pastry flour, sticks of butter, and lemons instead of edible staples. Ice cream somehow found its way into the grocery bag too, so if the power goes out, please join us for a freezer par-tay. All joking aside, with lots of family and friends living up and down the coast, we’re hoping for a quick turnaround and a lesser impact than what is predicted for this storm that just so happens to share my opposite-of-destructive mother’s name.

Thanks to a few episodes of season 3 of Nikita, we’ve got a loaf of pecan and cranberry-studded bread cooling next to a pear and apple crisp that also is…cranberry-studded. Nikita herself probably doesn’t eat anything baked, or anything with fat, salt, or sugar for that matter, but she might be enticed to chow down on a slice of this bread before she heads off to ride motorcycles and karate-chop bad guys. It’s got the texture of a good banana bread with a slightly crunchy top due to a sprinkling of sugar, and the usual blah-blah-blah about how the tartness of the cranberries nicely offsets the sweetness of the bread. They really do, though. As soon as I can get my hands on more fresh cranberries, I’m making this again.

Cranberry Pecan Bread
(Very slightly adapted from Martha Stewards recipe found here)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
12 ounces fresh cranberries (if buying in the store, 1 bag is typically 12 oz.)
1/2 cup pecans, toasted and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar, for topping (I used regular sugar)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees; grease a loaf pan (I use coconut oil spray, but Martha says butter and flour, and she is Martha).

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a medium bowl, mix together butter, egg, milk, and extracts. Add wet mixture to dry mixture and stir until just combined, then fold in cranberries and pecans.

Pour batter into your loaf pan; sprinkle top with turbinado sugar if desired.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in center of loaf comes out clean, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Transfer pan to a wire rack; let bread cool 30 minutes. Invert onto rack, then immediately turn right side up to cool completely.

I Love You, A Bushel and a Peck

First things first. This is Mema:

She uses straws to drink huge goblets of beer while looking like the world’s biggest cutie pie. That’s just how she rolls.  You can do what you want when you’re 88 years old.

During our trip to Texas in August, Matt and I got to spend a few blisteringly hot days visiting Mema — we roamed around Waco to see where my mom and her siblings grew up and then enjoyed a dinner out with all of them (my uncle has a Texas accent so thick that he can’t get Siri to do a damn thing for him), helped with a few errands and chores (H.E.B. runs and a little 105 degree weeding), and spent hours rooting around in an incredible cache of old photos and films.  Every photo came with a story, some of which I’d never heard before.  Like how my mother was named after my Grandpa’s favorite student Sandra, (said in a sing-song voice) “the smartest girl in the class.”  How Mema remembers her own grandfather always eating Limburger cheese (“Oooo-whew! And it smelled!”) And how Mema was engaged to another man when my grandpa, who was away at his marines posting and whom she wasn’t dating at the time but had in the past, wrote her a letter that read, simply: “Are you married yet? If not let me know.”  It was a characteristically succinct message from him, yet effective, because as they say: the rest was history.

On one morning during the visit we took a 45-minute drive out to Cedar Springs where Mema and Grandpa once owned a farm.  My sisters spent most of our childhood holidays and weekends there, and I wanted to relive the experience and have Matt see it for the first time. Just turning from the asphalt highway onto the rocky, dirt country road that leads to the house conjured up a gusher of memories: old blankets spread in the back of the big red suburban, where the heat from the road and the blast of the A/C made for the very best of naps, scouring freshly churned field rows for arrowheads, the smell of the peeling cedars and algae-blanketed pond and old cheese for baiting the hooks that caught the catfish that you’d name Charlie and then throw back, all underscored by the constant, undulating drone of cicadas.  Mema would make tuna fish sandwiches, Miracle Whip for some, but Hellman’s for those with more refined palates, and Grandpa would yell at rookie news anchors with bad politics while we giggled from behind his chair. Mema would care for her roses and flowers, and we’d marvel over the soft, raised veins in her hands that she said we’d all get some day.  Grandpa would read and read and read, but he’d move like a flash to the locked gun cabinet if you said you spied a water moccasin in the pond.

We’d do Thanksgiving there with ambrosia always part of the spread – for the uninitiated, that’s canned crushed pineapple, canned mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries, sweetened coconut flakes, mini-marshmallows, and sour cream all stirred together into a sweet, gloppy mass.  In college I thought myself quite clever when I called it “kitschy.”  I know better now, and it still holds a place of honor on our holiday table.  Grandpa would make killer brisket until he went vegetarian, which typically wouldn’t fly in that part of rural Texas, but no one dared mess with Grandpa.  During my vegetarian stint, when we had Hamburger Helper at home I had little alternative than to sneak handfuls of it into the potted plant centerpiece. (“So that’s why it smelled so bad!” says Mom).  But when we were at the farm Grandpa would give me some of his pile of sautéed peppers and onions and say that we vegetarians would live to be one hundred.  Once in a blue moon, Mema would pull out her accordion (yeah, that’s also how she rolls) and she’d play a polka, or this song.  She’d also squash the rogue scorpion that snuck into the house with nary a moment’s hesitation.

I’ve got the beginnings of the raised veins in my hands, and a Becker nose that will persist for generations, but I still hope to someday be as tough and chipper, social and effervescent as Mema, and as quietly smart, adaptable and hard working as Grandpa, who started delivering ice from a truck as a teenager, and went on to be a first lieutenant in the Marines, a high school principal, a baseball coach who hardly knew a thing about baseball, a businessman, and a grandfather to thirteen grandchildren.

The end.

Except for one more thing…

Aren’t my mom and her sisters and sister-in-law total babes??

Sometimes You Find Yourself in the Strangest of Places

80% of this job involves sitting at a desk in front of a computer flanked by stacks of books and haphazardly arranged files, kept company by a stealthily reproductive family of 17 thumb drives and a blanket of post-it notes.  Much of what happens at the computer is quite interesting.  But the other 20% of my work time sees a little more physical action and a change of scenery.

It’s during the 20% portion that it’s often necessary for a little pinch reminder that yes, this is my reality. It might be because that Civil War soldier is eating Cheetos. But has he signed an appearance release yet?

It could stem from the fact that the 1919 synagogue where we’re rearranging pews used to be adjacent to a Beacon Hill brothel. (Bostonites – Did you ever think you’d hear “Beacon Hill” and “brothel” in the same sentence? Heck no! But be quick and pass the embroidered khakis and sockless boat shoes before John Kerry spots us).

Perhaps it comes when I have to ask a skeptical building manager if he’ll please give me access to the icy roof of this 50+story building in mid-January to take a few pictures in between 60 mph wind gusts? Thanks, and I promise not to set off the emergency exit alarm again on my way out.

Or maybe: Do I know how to hang brocade curtains in a shuttered hospital wing? No, but I’ll take a crack at it if you hand me the staple gun. Where is Frederick Douglass supposed to sit again?

No matter what or where or how, that 20% is way fun. And even if it doesn’t teach me how to manage my 401K instead of stashing my savings of Sacajawea coins in a Bass shoebox under the bed, it enforces my enormous respect for all the people out there that do know how to do that. And who keep the traffic lights working and their kids’ noses clean and administer flu shots, or who run volunteer organizations or help others with taxes or translate legal documents.

Everybody finds themselves in some strange places sometimes – where’s the randomest place you’ve been as a result of your job?

A’s Medical “Fact” of the Day

My sister A, a second-year med school student, occasionally contributes Medical Facts of the Day. Today’s is less gory than usual, which is nice because it means that salmon post I’ve got all geared up to go can bookend what you see below. Without further ado…

I Like Ike… and Rat Poison 

The year was 1955. Dwight D. Eisenhower was vacationing with the in-laws in Denver, Colorado, enjoying some golf when he started experiencing some angina. Later that evening, his crushing substernal chest pain intensified, and he was rushed to the nearest hospital. The coronary artery supplying the anterior portion of Ike’s heart, called the Left Anterior Descending or “Widow-maker’s artery” had been blocked by a ruptured atherosclerotic plaque, causing oxygen deprivation of his heart tissue.

In present times, “crushing substernal chestpain,” the telltale sign of a heart attack, is immediately worked up with an EKG and blood tests for cardiac enzymes, and patients are given sublingual aspirin, heparin, oxygen, morphine, and thrombolytics, and placed on secondary prophylaxis with Coumadin. But back in the day, treatment wasn’t so established. Ike was given oxygen, morphine, and heparin, and lay in bed sick for days at enormous risk of suffering from subsequent MI and death.

Wasn’t there something more we could do for this VIP??? Everyone was wondering. Everyone who knew, that is, since his illness was kept secret from the nation. His doctor, Dr. Paul Dudley White, the “Father of American Cardiology” suggested a new treatment – warfarin. Warfarin had been used as rat poison, where in application it led to thinning of the blood and hemorrhage in rodents. There had been very little research done on human subjects, but the drug’s anti-thrombotic effects seemed promising.

So Dr. White gave rat poison to the president. And the president lived, running for another term of presidency just a year later. Warfarin is now routinely used for patients at risk of thromboembolic disease, thanks to Dr. White, Ike, and any rats injured along the way.

Stay tuned for more Presidents in Medicine. Next up: Honest Abe the…Syphilitic?
(Side note: If you like Lincoln, Chris Sarandon, and history, check out Hour 3 of the PBS series God in America. Vested interests are present here.)
Photo credit: Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-104961